United States Acts Quickly To Address Japan's Concerns About Beef

By Kathryn McConnell
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - The United States has prohibited the meat processing plant that sent a shipment of beef with bone pieces to Japan from making any future beef exports to that country.

"While this is not a food safety issue, this is an unacceptable failure on our part to meet the requirements of our agreement with Japan. We take this matter seriously, recognizing the importance of our beef export market, and we are acting swiftly and firmly," Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns said in a January 20 statement.

International standards and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations do not consider the part of the spinal matter found in the shipment a specified risk material because it was in beef from a cow less than 20 months old, a USDA spokesman said.

However, the U.S. agreement with Japan stipulates that no backbone matter at all would be contained in export shipments.

The move comes after Japan said it was reinstating a ban on U.S. beef imposed in December 2003 after a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) was discovered in a U.S. herd in a single cow imported from Canada.

The ban was lifted in December 2005 with the stipulation that no vertical column material would be contained in U.S. export shipments and that shipments would consist solely of beef and beef products from cows under 30 months of age. (See related article.)

USDA very soon will provide Japan with a detailed report of its inspection into the matter and steps taken to resolve the problem, Johanns said at a press briefing after the statement was issued.

USDA is increasing the number of on-site inspectors at U.S. processing plants to ensure compliance with export procedures, Johanns said.

Johanns also said USDA will begin to require a second food safety inspector's signature on export certificates before a shipment leaves a processing facility, and will implement unannounced inspections.

The secretary said USDA will require inspectors to undergo additional training to ensure they are aware of all export requirements, he said.

Additionally, USDA is sending inspectors to Japan to work with that country's officials to re-examine beef shipments from the United States waiting approval for acceptance, Johanns said.

Johanns' comments came just hours after Japan announced a halt in U.S. beef imports.  The secretary said he had spoken with Japan's ambassador to the United States to say he regretted the incident and that appropriate steps were being taken.

He also said he hoped soon to speak with Japan's agriculture minister, as well as with officials from other countries to inform them of the additional steps USDA is taking to inspect at processing plants beef for export.

The de-listed beef processor is located in New York, the spokesman said.

On January 19, USDA announced that Singapore would reopen its markets to U.S. beef. Singpore also closed its markets to U.S. beef in the wake of the December 2003 BSE discovery. (See related article.)

In December 2005, Hong Kong said it would reopen its markets, and in January, South Korea agreed to reopen partially its markets to U.S. beef.  (See related article.)

Prior to the ban, Japan had been the largest importer of U.S. beef, with imports valued between $1.4 billion and $1.7 billion, according to news reports.

Johanns’ statement and a transcript of his press briefing are available on the USDA Web site.  Video of the press briefing is also available on the agency’s Web site.